The Joys of Entertaining Your Kid While Traveling Light…

As I said in an earlier post, I can’t say that I enjoy traveling with my son and not because I don’t love him more than anything in the world and want to be with him all the time (with a few exceptions, like the times he throws all his toys off of the play table and starts screaming and flapping his arms on the floor as if he wanted to make a snow angel on the parquet all because his Tonka truck doesn’t fit into the Thomas and Friends tunnel, or when he runs off with the keys right as I am leaving for work and hides them in one of his “special” places, you know, the ones that parents find out about when the apple slice he hid there a few days ago starts to putrefy, or when he braces his legs against the high chair when you want to pull him out and get him into the bath for a hose down after he dumped his yogurt and honey snack over his head (just for kicks) so you actually have to disassemble the whole thing to extricate him while he screams into whichever ear is closest to his mouth… yeah – then, right at that moment, I don’t like him that much – don’t get me wrong , though, I still love him, just, well, you know what I mean, right?). I have already described the stress levels of traveling with a toddler (and my hat is tipped to those with more than one kid!) so I wanted to go into more detail about one aspect of the traveling experience and this applies to a one hour drive as much as to a ten hour flight (although I’ll grant you the latter is certainly tougher). Specifically the number of items you have to shove into your “diaper bag” (people who don’t have kids think that this is just another cute bag to carry around like an accessory with maybe a diaper – hence the name – and a baby bottle somewhere inside… funny). These are all essential survival (and for parent’s mentally sanity) tools for anyone heading with a – potential hissy-fit throwing, snack wanting (NOW!) and wearing (ALL OVER!), pooping, drooling, nose dripping, attention span of a gnat – child. Sure, none of the above might happen, but why make your parenting life harder? So in go the wipes, diapers, creams, snacks, blankies, change of clothing, pacifiers and books/toys/instruments/etc. (lots and lots of them!) and your shoulders curse at you as you hoist the one hundred pound diaper bag onto them (usually the stroller’s handle bars are reserved for my wife’s hand bag which is basically another diaper bag – just one that, as she puts it, reminds her that she is still a woman – and weighs just below the threshold weight that would turn the stroller into a catapult).

Now keep in mind that a good eighty percent of that weight comes from the books/toys/instruments/etc. that are the required distraction for surviving a supermarket run just as much as that ten hour flight. I would love to find a product that lightens that weight and keeps my kid entertained on many different levels. I know my son loves to play with my iPhone or any other expensive electronic gadget that I might have lying around, but I would rather get something that is more at his level for now (I am sure he will be jailbreaking and reprogramming my iPhone by the time he is in Kindergarten) and that will not dent the piggybank if he breaks it (amazing how ingenious toddlers are at reverse engineering objects!).

I think I found something that might just come to my aid. I was invited by VTech to hang out at their loft during ToyFair here in NYC and get some hands on time with their newest line of products for 2010. There were a lot of more or less interesting toys on display, but one in particular piqued my interest – the FLiP.

The FLiP is a tablet shaped interactive reader (with hinged protective cover) that is basically a very simple version of an e-book reader for kids. It is rugged and fairly light weight, has a color touch screen (and physical “flat” qwerty keyboard) and interchangeable cartridges for reading different books. The books are interactive and animated stories that allow your kid (who can enter their name and pick an Avatar) to interact with the story, have it read to them, highlight specific words (there is a dictionary) and then play games that are related to the story. They can earn reading certificates as they progress through the story titles and shortly after the FLiP hits stores and in August (SRP $59.99) users will have access through a VTech VPN to a downloadable online library with more than hundred additional titles (some free) including some well-known licensed characters.

The FLiP will be available in blue and pink (I am surprised that VTech did not say that they will sell customizable skins with Curious George, Spiderman, Thomas&Friends etc. themes since kids, like adults, love to be able to distinguish between what is MINE! MINE! And what is yours, but I WANT IT!).

What I found particularly attractive about the FLiP from a parent’s point of view is the integration of several entertainment elements into a very portable object. I love my kid’s books and toys and love that he plays with them more than he watches TV or DVDs, but as I said before, I wish I did not have to lug them around. I think FliP offers that solution for parents with toddlers and small children. VTech sees this product in the 3-7yrs category, I think my toddler son would enjoy it as well. The FLiP is interactive without “hypnotizing”. There are enough separate things you can do with it to ensure that your kid feels that they are interacting with several “objects” within one platform (see the “attention span of a gnat” comment above) which is a life saver when you are trying to keep them busy and they keep wanting “something else” every two seconds.

The true test will be getting one in my son’s hands and seeing how he interacts with the unit. As far as I am concerned it could be a real winner in the “how-do-I-keep-my-kid-busy-while-on-the-go” category.

Drinking Coffee Where The Wild Things Are…

The first sign of my son’s awakening in the morning is usually a sudden and sustained banshee-like scream that thanks to the monitor my wife places on my nightstand is the only alarm clock I need.

This is my cue to stumble towards the kitchen as my wife attempts to calm our son who is entering his full “I WANT MY MILK!” frenzy. It’s all very Where The Wild Things Are-esque with “gnashing of teeth” and all. There are two things I have to do simultaneously when I reach the kitchen (hopefully without tripping or bumping into anything in the dark):

1. Heat milk (for my son)

2. Make coffee (for my wife)

This must all be completed in less than the 30 seconds it takes my wife to bring our own little Max to inspect my work (and gnash some more). Quiet returns to our humble abode only when I have successfully inserted the sippy cup straw into my son’s mouth. Then comes the extra large 10 serving cup size mug full of steaming coffee for my loving wife who has been mumbling to no one in particular the whole time. This leaves yours truly with just enough coffee to open one eye completely. I lovingly pour the remaining precious drops of the restorative elixir into one of two portable coffee mugs: my stainless steel thermal OXO Liquiseal Travel Mug from their Good Grips line or my brown and red KeepCup.

Sure, there are thousands of mugs out there, but I have tried hundreds and these are the only two that I find practical and yet of rare beauty in this product category. For reasons known only to them, most manufacturers of “travel mugs” compete to create the ugliest objects in the consumer realm (Is it a coincidence that it is a favorite trade show tchotchke along with glow in the dark key-chain bottle openers?).

So I tip my hat to these two companies for making an object that I am actually not embarrassed to bring with me to work or while pushing around the stroller.
More importantly they can take quite a beating and in OXO’s case have never spilled even a drop of coffee on me even after having been used as a sledgehammer by my son. The OXO also does an incredible job of keeping the coffee warm FOREVER!

As for the KeepCup, it is shatter proof and recyclable (polypropylene #5) when its recommended life cycle of 4 years is up. The designers of this very cool cup added a very nifty tab to keep your coffee from spilling from the sip hole that is unobtrusively attached to the KeepCup’s lid.
So after the traumatic awakening I can slink off with my spiffy mug and precious load of coffee to nurse my aching ear!

Mastering the one handed diaper change…

Most dads today find themselves on diaper duty at some point during the day. If they work during the day this often means getting double shifts on weekends. I have not met a dad yet (mom’s are way ahead of us on this!) who doesn’t say they wish there was an easy way to have all the necessary diapers, wipes and creams in one easily accessible place.

Men are just not used to rummaging through thousands of items in a seemingly bottomless bag to find the one that is buried in its most hidden corner. Women, on the other hand, get plenty of practice with their handbags and purses starting when the play dress-up as little girls! Guys, at most, have to deal with gym bags or briefcases that are certainly not filled to the brim with absolutely everything needed in case there is an apocalypse while you are out of the house and you are the lone survivor.

I admit that I have “bag rummaging” envy vis-à-vis my wife and I admire the deftness with which, much like magicians and their top hats, she is able to quickly find and extract an infinite number of objects that quite frankly I had no idea could fit in what seems like a fairly normal sized bag.

To add insult to injury, see if this sounds familiar: My wife is “multitasking” (word that is used to inform men of our apparent short comings) working on the computer, pulling dangerous object from my sons mouth, prepping his food, talking on the phone etc. and so she turns to me and tells me to go get something from her handbag. I start to sweat. I walk up to the purse and kneel in front of it. Roll up my sleeve and gently lower my shaking hand inside looking for said object (imagine a grown-up version of the board game Operation).

A couple of hours later I gingerly pull my arm back out of the handbag in defeat and deliver the news only to have her give me that “look”, walk over to the bag, stick her hand in it and pull out the desired object all in one motion (and without looking)!

Now imagine you are off to your kid’s favorite playground and as you plop him or her into the second swing from the right (because that is the only swing they will not give you a really hard time getting into) that is exactly what you start to smell! You get to the nearest bench, you prop open the diaper bag and start looking for the tools of the trade. This kind of Search and Rescue operation becomes even more complicated for us when one arm is occupied in corralling your kid’s flailing legs and lifting them to get access to the “red zone” during a diaper change.

Of course, if you watch my wife (and all of the other mom’s at the playground), the diaper change consists of a few quick turns and swipes all very fluid and precise. Think of professional ice skaters making all those twirling jumps look easy: find and unfurl the changing pad with one hand as she flips my son on his back while pulling his pants to his ankles with the other hand. Hold him by the ankles with enough pressure to lift legs without hurting him or making him squirm. She reaches back into diaper bag and removes wipes with thumb and ring finger while squeezing just the right amount of diaper cream onto index and middle fingers. Wipe, spread cream and drop legs. Close diapers and pull up pants. Perfect 10s all around!

So back to my playground predicament: Right off the bat, I forget the changing pad in the diaper bag. I get the dirty diaper off and then remember you need wipes to do this right. I look for the wipes as my son starts flailing his legs and arching his back so that everything smears everywhere. Finally find the wipes and manage to pull five wipes all clumped together. Wipe and realize that those were the only five wipes I had left. Look around for help. Finding none I grasp about inside the diaper bag and grab the face ointment instead of the diaper cream because quite frankly all those tubes of paste and cream look and feel the same. Find the diapers. Wrestle my son into a clean one as sweat pours from my forehead. And dress him again while he screams at the top of his lungs because I really needed everyone staring at me, too.

Granted I may have exaggerated my ineptness (sort of), but you get my point. Why not have everything you need for a diaper change assembled in one easily accessible and compact container? This way I can grab it out of the bag, lay it out next to me on the park bench and get going!

Yup, there’s a bag for that! Now before you snicker like a little boy (which is exactly what I did) at the company’s name, know that this product is a dad’s best friend during in-field diaper change ops! Think Rambo meets Look Who’s Talking.

My Royal Heinie makes what I consider to be the best on-the-go diaper/wipe dispenser out there. And to help maintain my machismo the mothers who invented this product were kind enough to call it “the wallet”. Not only; but they also have it in a very “manly” commando color (aka cammo green).

This will avoid any “girlie man” Governator-style comments from friends, family and those seemingly cute old couples who sit on park benches and feel the need to comment, without social filter, on everything within sight.

Before heading out just grab some wipes and slide them into the built in dispenser (which keeps them moist), grab some diaper and the diaper cream tube to stick into the zipped compartment (not the face ointment) and you are ready to go. Then when you need to change your kid just pull out the wallet and all three essentials for the diaper change are right there next to you. No more rummaging blindly through the diaper bag as panic sets in and your kid starts to wriggle loose from your grip!


Water, water everywhere…

I hope that with this post I can leave the past behind and give SIGG a clean slate. We all know what happened.
If not, read here for a guide to their past transgression. As far as I am concerned they made amends, albeit it a bit late in the game. I am a marketing guy and I know what a hit they took. So kudos to them and yes, I am giving them a second chance (I live, more often than not, by the proverb: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”) Others, I am sure, are less forgiving.

So why exactly do I still swear by SIGG? The main reason is: they are extremely portable and easy for kids to drink from thanks to their lightweight aluminum structure and they are easy to wash without residual odors. This inevitably forces them to have a “food safe” liner which is now 100% BPA-free. I say inevitably because aluminum should not have prolonged direct contact with water. So why not stick with stainless steel, BPA-free plastic or glass? I have done my own (non-scientific) research and weighed the pros and cons of all these materials and decided that I find aluminum fits my needs and habits as a busy dad. Of course, this may not apply to everyone. That’s the beauty of having many different choices!

I do have stainless steel bottles, but they remain at home for “night stand duty” because they are just too heavy to lug around and my son keeps dropping them on his toes because he is still not strong enough to hold on to them. Of course, we have plenty of BPA-free plastic sippy cups at home, but although I do love them all, they all end up in the recycling bin after inevitably attracting all those odors that come from milk, orange juice and fruit shakes (the downside of BPA-free plastics) no matter how vigorously you scrub them. And do I really have to discuss the cons of placing glass anywhere within reach of kids? I am of course always open to information and data that may very well change my mind so I look forward to reading comments.

The bottles, I have found, are surprisingly durable for such lightweight material. They take quite a beating from my son (alright, I admit that I too drop them on occasion) and hold up well (the dents and dinks are inevitable so don’t expect them to bounce off the floor unscathed).

SIGG bottles are another one of those products that for me unite sleek industrial design, whimsical looks and practicality. They are more expensive than comparable stainless steel and BPA-free plastic water bottles that are out there, but I feel that the premium is worth it for all the reasons I listed above, as well as for the available accessories (especially for kids) that are well thought out and useful for when you are on the go.

Two areas in which I feel SIGG has lacked initiative, though, is their US customer service and their US website. The former is certainly of greater concern; the latter is just my marketing instinct kicking in. Premised that I dealt with them mainly at the end of 2009 when they were busy dealing with a major bottle exchange program, but I can only excuse them so much because it was something they should have logistically planned for well in advance. This entails making sure you have enough human resources to deal with the inevitable influx of questions and concerns. Unfortunately, they dropped the ball on this one. I sent several e-mails and responses were slow (a month slow) and often the response felt automated as if they had not read my message at all. In the end, though, they did send me a proper apology note with my credit for the bottles I sent in to exchange.

Their US website is also in serious need of an update. Surprising, given how well the other SIGG worldwide sites are built and branded. This may be due to how they are structured in the US, but I am surprised that in such an important consumer market they have neglected this aspect of their marketing push for so long. Then again, it may be in the works and I just don’t know about it (if SIGG wants to send me more insight I am happy to update the post). Luckily the ordering process is fairly straight forward and delivery fast. I do suspect for several reasons that they are in the process of “relaunching” (and again this is just my gut instinct because I have not spoken directly with SIGG) and frankly I think it would behoove them to do so as part of their brand reset in the US.
I know I have just spent the last couple of paragraphs lauding the advantages of SIGG’s aluminum structure, but I cannot help to mention their SteelWorks line that, unlike their Swiss Made aluminum line, is Made in China (I know what you are thinking, but I am in no way implying that this makes them an inferior product).

I have not gotten my hands on them yet (I am actually waiting to see if they will bring their very cool-looking .6L SteelWorks flasks to the US which are currently only available in Europe), but I will make sure to post a review as soon as I do (and to be as fair as possible I will compare it to other stainless steel water bottles because I am convinced that aluminum is a notch above stainless steel for this product – at least as far as parenting duties and usage are concerned).
I admit I have written more than usual, but you will agree that there was a lot to talk about with regard to SIGG. I hope I have given everyone enough information to draw their own conclusions. Marketing aside, I do believe SIGG water bottles are the best in their niche and they are – in my humble opinion – the benchmark.

Rocking and a rowing…

As I have said before, I am a big fan of beautiful and practical design. Bloom’s CocoStylewood fits that description. The sleek unibody design makes it a welcome addition to a nursery. I confess that at first my son was not thrilled to be rocked in it, but as he grew older he actually sought it out and rocked himself in it – giggling with delight. It has now become his Row, Row, Row Your Boat perch!

I must also confess that if Bloom made an adult size CocoStylewood I would probably be typing this post while rocking in one. The construction is solid* and the micro-suede is very supple. Bloom offers wood and plexi-glass for the unibody base as well as numerous colors of micro-suede. Of course I can never say enough good things about a company that makes children’s products that are lead free, phthalate free, PVC free, heavy metal free, and AZO dye free (you can read the company’s safety and sustainability statement here). After wondering whether this should be on our baby registry I can say that we certainly made the right choice.

*I have to asterisk my solidly built statement because I actually did have a slight problem with my initial CocoStylewood. I can’t say for sure what happened, but the wood “sheets” that build the base separated from each other and as I said it was in the phase in which my son was not so fond of it. Basically, it came unglued. It did not however seem to be cracking or compromising the structure itself. Nonetheless, I did not want to risk it breaking so I gave Bloom a call and they promptly sent a replacement. The new unit has been perfect after much more use than the first unit, so I chalk up the first units glitch to being a one-off. I also have to say that Bloom’s customer service was exemplary and this only makes me recommend their products more emphatically.

Brown bag lunches have just gone “green”…

I am by no means a fanatic, but like many of us I like to do the little things that I hope will make less of a negative impact on the environment. This is true of the environment we live in as well as our body’s environment. We ingest and touch so many toxic chemicals and irritants everyday that I like it when someone comes up with a simple way to reduce that exposure. I am not talking about “earth shattering” reductions, but enough to take another little step in the right direction.

One such product is LunchBots. Made of stainless steel, LunchBots are versatile containers to pack your and your kid’s lunch. They are the perfect solution for avoiding plastic containers for packing lunch and snacks. They do not leach chemicals like plastic does. They are eco-friendly and reusable. And quite frankly they look pretty slick!

I actually own all four sizes: Uno, Duo, Eco and Pico. I have used them often and find them very durable and very useful. They handle everything very well (although I have still not had the courage to test sauces and liquids, but then again I don’t trust those in any container that I have to pack unless it’s a screw top!) and hold up well when tossed around by my son (he is in his “test-all-objects-to-see-if-they-bounce” phase). They wash well in the dishwasher and so far are truly rust-free (something many claim, but never make good on). So I highly recommend them for anyone who packs lunch for themselves or for their kids!

Children’s products useful by design and cool by nature…

One of my favorite companies, as a Dad, is Boon.

I always admire a company that can create children’s products that are useful, safe, aesthetically pleasing and just plain cool. That does not mean these are the only kind of children’s products I like or buy, but I am most attracted by a well-thought out and beautifully designed product. I own and use seven of Boon’s products: Frog Pod, Squirt, Fluid, Catch Bowl, Snack Ball, ModWare and Groovy.

The Frog Pod is a great bathtub accessory. The frog keeps all of my son’s bath time toys in one place and hung to dry when not in use. Since I am often on tub cleaning duty after my wife whisks him off to his room to prep him for bed, I just unhook the Pod from the wall, drag it through the tub (thanks to the “vents”) and quickly pick up all loose toys. Then you just hook it back to the base and the next morning everything is dripped dry! The only thing I would say you need to be aware of is that if you choose to use the suction cups to hook the base to the bathroom tiles do not position the Pod directly under the shower because if a lot of water gets to the suction cups they will (logically) come loose and the whole unit will fall off. Can be a bit jarring to hear that clatter in the middle of the night!

The Squirt, Fluid, Catch Bowl, Snack Ball, ModWare and Groovy are all for different stages of your baby and toddler’s feeding phases. The squirt made feeding homemade fruit and vegetable puree’s to our son, when he was starting on solids, a cinch. The ModWare is a great way to get toddlers to eat their meals without sticking themselves or chiseling “Elmo loves me alot!” into the dining room table! Paired with the Catch Bowl (for anything that could go “splat!”) and Groovy (for less “clean-up” intense food) these utensils have been a great way to get our son to eat with us at the table using our “table-friendly” Tripp Trapp high chair by Stokke (that will be reviewed in upcoming posts).

Two niggles here on two of the Boon products I have used to allay any fears that I am blindly in love with their products (doing get me wrong… I kinda do!). The Fluid allows for great hand control when your kid is ready for what I call “tipping” sippy cups, but (and this problem does not only afflict Boon) does nothing to avoid a steady stream of water when our son decides to play “let’s see how much water I can pour onto the hard wood floor”. The trade off for the “staying put” power of the Catch Bowl is the need for a foot planted against the table, both hands firmly grasping the bowl and all your weight leaning back to pry the sucker (no pun intended) off the table (and often from the sink when you go to wash it out). As I said: “niggles” that do not really downgrade the product experience much nor can I honestly think that there is an easy work around considering that they serve their primary purpose well.

The Snack Ball is probably my favorite Boon product. It is very versatile doubling as a very resistent “ball” to play catch with or a table top bowling ball using toy soldiers as pins. To be honest, I have used it often for my own snacks because as I said before it is just plain cool. I must warn you, though, if you plan on using it for yourself you will have to get used to other parents giving you some dirty looks for apparently depriving your child of their snack!

And it does not end with my review of Boon products because there are two points about this company that I think add value to their products. As a marketing person myself I know how often gimmicks are used by companies to nurture affection from customers more often than not as a facade for lack of quality in their products or services. Boon on the other hand has great products, so they could simply end their offering there, but they strive to make products that are BPA-, Phthalate- and PVC-free and as if that is not enough they have a Giving Back program that has been committed from “Day 1” to donating 10% of profits to charities specifically benefiting children in need. Now if that doesn’t further convince you to grab some Boon products I don’t know what will!